Yesterday, as some of you know, I had the mind-blowing honor of accompanying my father, Robert Spaight – formerly Lt. Robert Spaight, United States 8th Air Force – on the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. Stars and Stripes Honor Flight’s mission is to fly WWII veterans – and terminally-ill veterans from other wars – to see their memorials in Washington, DC.
I’ve talked for years about wanting to take my Dad to see the WWII memorial (it was completed and opened in 2004). And it just seemed too logistically difficult to take an 88-year-old man who doesn’t get around that well to D.C. by myself. Which is why Honor Flight was started in the first place…because many other veterans and their families were feeling exactly the same way. Brilliant!
It wasn’t really about seeing the monuments, at least for my Dad: WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Iwo Jima, the Air Force Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery. Each a powerful reminder of the sacrifices made by so many and moving in its own way.
In the end, it was about his handsome face beaming with a feeling of pure, unadulterated pride that I have never, EVER seen before.
When we landed in D.C. and arrived to a number of families, including some military families, lots of children, and others, he lit up like a rock star. And when we arrived back home in Milwaukee and stepped off the plane into a long line of servicemen and women saluting him, bagpipers piping, and uproarious applause, I lost it completely while he just got an incredible burst of energy and swelled with visible pride like a soldier 60-years younger. He was standing taller. “Look at his face.” said Mark, our incredible bus captain and Honor Flight SE Wisconsin board member. I did, and I lost it even harder. He finally knew…he finally FELT how much he is loved and respected.
“Sir, would you like a wheelchair?” said the volunteer who met him at the gate. “NO.” said my Dad, and he marched right on through that airport, waving, shaking hands, kissing and flirting with the ladies (pretty much what he did most of the day), hugging family members and strangers alike. Oh, and giving his favorite joke response to “Thank you for your service”: “I’ll be sending you a bill. Freedom isn’t free, you know.” Yep. That’s my Dad. And I couldn’t be prouder.
Here are a few photos of the day (click on the icon of the four arrows lower right to view full screen, way better.)(ah hell the embed is FLASH so won’t work on iPhone/iPad. Total fail. Sorry ’bout that.)
Beyond my Dad, it was a powerful, very humbling experience to spend a full day around this many heroes. These are men and women who SET PEOPLE FREE, which tends to put things into perspective. While there wasn’t as much time for the veterans to share stories with each as I think most would have liked, my Dad did run into a couple of other guys from the 8th Air Force, which meant the world to him. (I wonder… if Honor Flight created some sort of ultra-simple-to-use online forum for these guys to stay in touch after the flight, would they use it?)
While the emotions of the day run high, they are almost overpowered by sheer awe at the logistical accomplishments. Imagine getting 224 octogenarians and their ‘guardians’ checked in, through special security, photographed, fed, boarded, flown, escorted through a whirlwind tour of the nation’s capitol and safely back in time for a stunning display of community love and affection the same evening. NOT an easy feat, but somehow they make it feel like it is. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE this organization is. The board and staff – 100% volunteer – has logistics that put most much-larger organizations to shame and hearts of pure gold, which is a pretty stunning combination.
Honor Flight is the perfect example of how the vision of an individual and the shared passion of many individuals coming together can impact the lives of thousands and thousands of people. My gratitude for their commitment, their hard work and their spirit is inexpressible. Dear Honor Flight founders and staff: THANK YOU. From the bottom of our hearts. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. You gave us an experience together that we will never forget.
If you want to know more about Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, read their backstory. If you know a WWII veteran who hasn’t gone yet, strongly encourage them to apply. The waiting time is getting shorter (sadly, because 1,000 WWII veterans die each day). If you have the means, make a donation. You can also apply to be a guardian, traveling with a veteran who needs someone, which requires a $500 donation which falls far short of what it is worth. And you can apply to be an Honor Flight volunteer. If the fact that sometimes there is a waiting list even to be a volunteer doesn’t tell you how spectacular this organization is, well I don’t know what will.
You can also just show up at the airport next time an Honor Flight comes in (there are hubs all over the country!), experience it yourself, and give the Greatest Generation some love. I promise you, it will be time VERY well spent.
Or, if you’re in or near the Milwaukee area, you can go to the Honor Flight Field of Honor event at Miller Park, August 11. They will be premiering their documentary film about Honor Flight, which is sure to be incredible.
Do you know anyone who has done Stars and Stripes Honor Flight? What was their experience like?